As I soon as I got out of my truck and stood for the first time in Joshua Tree village, a small town in southern California where the Sonoran and Mojave deserts meet, I couldn’t tell where I stopped and the dry warm air and dusty Earth started. It felt like the fire inside that had propelled me west all summer had fully engulfed my being. I was in my element.
As I look back over my trajectory from upstate New York to Los Angeles in the summer of 2018, I see how the sparks became this blaze.
They started before I left Kingston, New York, a place in the lush, green, earthy Hudson Valley near the Catskill Mountains. I had been laying on the makeshift mattress on the floor. Everything in my two-bedroom space I had been living in had been packed. It was early in the morning on my second-to-last day there. I remember relishing the way the sun entered the windows in my bedroom, moved through a teardrop-shaped crystal, cast rainbows aka colorful kisses on the walls, a pile of bags, my toes. The morning gazing ritual was something that I loved to do every day, especially when reflecting on my own inner space.
“Who am I?”
That morning, I wondered if I could trust myself. The impulse to go west was strong. In the space of the apartment that was nearly empty, I felt full. The calling was my ethereal guide and I felt kinship with the sun, the sweet energy, the strong light.
I had packed my homa fire ceremony kit, and as I laid there considering the dates I had booked to offer public ceremonies, I recognized that I was nervous at the thought of bringing it across the country. It would be my first time practicing homa in groups beyond New York. Homa is a Vedic fire ceremony for peace. It is cleansing. It is healing across dimensions. Homa involves chanting Sanskrit as ghee (clarified butter) is offered to a small fire that is created in a copper container. I wondered, too, if my teacher Ma Bha (Ma Bhaskarananda), whom I met by going to Ananda Ashram in Monroe, New York (about an hour south from where I lived), would ever know just how much my life had changed by doing the ceremony that I had learned from her years ago.
I eventually got up off the floor and started on my departure to-do list. It was mid-morning when I received an unexpected message from Ma Bha’s son. (Her son happened to be my friend and lived on the street parallel to mine in Kingston. We knew each other for years before realizing the connection.) He said he had a few things for me. I was confused because I didn’t know what he would be bringing, let alone if it would fit in my truck, but I agreed to receive gifts. Later that night, he arrived with an entire bag of Ma Bha’s belongings, including a bag that she used when she went on her own pilgrimage to India. I was moved beyond words. That’s the moment I realized how deeply I had connected to the fire and to my teacher, who showed up in this amazing synchronicity. It was then I knew this road trip would be blessed, and that my intuition to go was aligned with a higher purpose.
The relationship that I have with fire (through the sun and actual thing and also through the creative process and metaphorical thing) is one of the most important relationships I have in my life. I often say at some point during a fire ceremony—“the light that you see in the flame is you, it is your inner light, it is your teacher”—because Ma Bha taught those words to me.
Personal growth and the experience of inner space is so subjective. But fire is part of it: a real fire can be the objective spark that sets the subjective inner light a-flame.
I carefully selected some places to stay on my journey west that would give me opportunities to share fire. I booked a week in Albuquerque, New Mexico to complete a seminar at the Ayurvedic Institute turned into a month-long stop.
Ma Bha had spent years there teaching alongside Dr. Vasant Lad, whose direction, teaching, and kindness has helped make the Ayurvedic Institute an authoritative place of Ayurvedic knowledge exchange in the West. Ayurveda offers a holistic frame for the material world, where everything interacts in a series of balance, imbalance, and exchanges. Homa is part of an ideal Ayurvedic self care routine. Each time I mentioned that I too had studied with Ma Bha in New York, I was met with exclaims of respect and joy at the Institute. I sat for several fire ceremonies while I was in Albuquerque, and I performed my first online broadcast of one. My hand shook as I lit the ceremonial fire in the kitchen of the apartment I had rented. I was nervous. I wondered if it would “work” over the Internet.
But, my friend fire showed up. The people who were at the online ceremony (physically across the country) felt the benefits, and told me afterward it was as if we were sitting together. The validation that I needed from my teacher, who was out of body, arrived. And the fact that fire works across time and space was confirmed.
This simple, enriching ceremony gave (and gives) me the ability to feel the fire inside and use it to create connection to others. To invoke the teachers we all have inside. To let us be able to hear the intuition and follow that compass to things that set us a-light.
I hesitate to use the word “pilgrimage” although it is indeed what the road trip became. It was a pilgrimage with a vague destination. As I drove, I kept referring to the time as “a blessed summer.” I just knew I had to do it. I just knew that I didn’t want to leave the question of “Who am I?” unanswered. Fire would help me answer that. “Why go west?” was what I needed to find out.
I made it to Los Angeles, where I connected with a teacher who catalyzed profound changed in me. I was as far west as I could go on the continent. And while the healing I received was intense, I knew Los Angeles wasn’t my final destination. So I turned around. I stayed a few nights in the low desert in Palm Springs, and an electricity started to flow through me. I wondered if that was it. I knew that many people spend time in the area around Joshua Tree in the high desert an hour away. There was something about the desert landscape that felt welcoming to me, and I knew people have profound experiences within themselves while on the land. I took a chance and rented a small casita on the highway in Joshua Tree. It was a tiny building in a tiny cluster of buildings that was the tiny town. As soon as I arrived there, a lightning bolt shot through me–metaphorically. A surge of energy. An excitement for the land and for the relationship that I would cultivate with my inner and outer fire. Intuition struck me with a confirmation that I had arrived to my final destination of what I now call my spiritual home.
The heat of the desert ignited the heat in me. The Earth, through fire, had called me home. All I had to do was show up and listen. I received a deeply renewed connection to Self. I was part of something greater. And there was great personal power within me.
Inner work sets the inner fire a-light and sparks inner transformation that is profound. Knowing that I had asked, “Who am I?” and then following the intuition to go west to a place that would nurture healing, growth, and transformation that would unleash that power is one of my proudest moments. Doubt and uncertainty was replaced with confidence and affirmation.
Here’s a poem I wrote one morning as I laid on a bed in a furnished house I rented in Joshua Tree on the first morning there:
The sun woke me up today; the rays were like a friend’s skilled hand, a presence with familiarity, playing some celestial rhythm; and in the music: light waves moving through the space, dancing on my eyelids, encouraging me to open them, inviting me to another day of life n’ play… // and then I went outside. // Let’s see what happens.
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The spacious, airy room was inviting; the colorful wall hangings and yoga mats complemented the soft, neutral colors of the wall. Sarah Bunting, the Student Services Coordinator, sat in circle with us, greeting our seminar group of approximately 50 people. Her job was to make sure that we were all well situated for the week ahead. As she spoke, explained the Institute’s principle and guidelines, she placed her hand over her heart, looked at each one of us. She conveyed her gratitude to all of us for being there, her joy at being able to share the kinship and respect for Dr. Lad and his work. At the end, she offered us an idea to sit with throughout the week: we were there to make culture together.
That statement really caught my attention because it’s not one that is used every day. At first glance, I observed that our natal cultures (of those attending the seminar) were varied, but what lay beneath that?
The Ayurvedic Institute was founded in Albuquerque, New Mexico in the 1980s by Dr. Vasant Lad, an Ayurvedic doctor from India; the Institute was meant to be a hub of practice around the teachings of Ayurveda, a body of knowledge that informs of principles for living in balance and harmony. Dr. Lad—his presence was warm, and his teachings were genuinely conveyed with love. The way he transmitted the principles of balance, imbalance, subtle energetic bodies and metaphysical concepts was accessible and immediately applicable. Every time that I looked around during a lecture, the room full of attendees appeared to be deep in communion with his words and presence.
Every day, at the start of lectures and at the end of them, we chanted a Sanskrit mantra that honored the beauty of the community and the teachings. We took 2-hour lunch breaks between sessions. We didn’t use cell phones in the buildings, and only took pictures of diagrams that Dr. Lad drew when he invited us to do so.
It was a curated way in which we interacted with each other.
The point was that if you didn’t go along with this, you could disturb the experience for others and you would be asked to leave. The container would be broken. The rules we were given weren’t meant to be fatalistic and rigid—I hope that I am conveying that duly here—but rather, these are all things we did to ensure we achieved the same collective end: a healing, whole experience. The culture we created during the week facilitated mindful and meaningful connection to each other while being in the presence of an incredible teacher. That was the point of the seminar.
I hear a lot about “co-creating” our experience in the transformative dance scene and self-growth communities that I am a part of. Somehow, when phrased like that, the ask seems transient. Like, once the event or experience is over, the next won’t necessarily require to co-create. The events must come with directions. Maybe that’s just part of the embedded, hardwired narrative I employ as an American—that I don’t usually co-create. But the idea is not different from “making culture”—it’s just that the intimate setting of 50 people from around the globe who converged at the Ayurvedic Instiute made the ask of co-creation seem less transient, more necessary, because that’s what Dr. Lad inspired. I’m finding that “my culture is to co-create”—even I don’t call it as such.
Essentially, this is what we do, even when it’s just between two people. The exchanges that we have on an individual level allow us to make culture every day. The mindfulness we bring to those exchanges reflect a culture that values the space-holding for another person.
And while culture connects you to an identity, the power in that identity lies in your ability to change it; to let it go; to reconstruct the identity in a manner that serves you, and with that your community. Making culture is mindfulness in action.
On the last day of the seminar, there was a joyous if not muted mood among the attendees. We knew we had spent a transformative week together, and I believe many of us were considering how to keep up the spirit of the Ayurvedic Institute—how to implement dietary, lifestyle, and other changes for optimal health and balance. How to incorporate breathing, yoga, and meditation as Ayurveda suggests for each individual. Most of all, how to keep up the mindfulness in our interaction with the external world, knowing the sense of community that can immediately be stoked when we agree to act toward a common experience.
As I was leaving, I ran into Sarah. I knew it would be one of the last transactions I had with her. I wanted to profess my gratitude for her support and guidance during the week. We locked eyes in a comfortable way. It was a feature of interacting with her that I came to expect. It felt good, too, in the manner of validation that I had her full presence.
She touched her heart after hearing my offering of gratitude.
I touched mine when she said, “Thank you.”
That has become second nature for me—that when I am connecting with someone deeply, or being given deep sharing—I touch my heart. It’s become part of my practice to honor others. It is my culture.